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Oh Bacchus, Where Art Thou?

Updated: May 8

After very much enjoying the week of bright and Baltic weather that this increasingly bonkers season offered up to us last week, normal service has temporarily been resumed. The rain has started to reassert itself again as the wind has started to blow in from the south west. Where all the water is. All is not lost in the vineyard. The soil has managed to retain a rough approximation of a solid surface, and I'm hopeful that it will remain that way until the rain inevitably stops again. Fingers crossed.


As the weather has taken a turn for the worse, this is an excellent time to turn our attention to the tasks around here that we can do indoors. And that means it is time to pop our wine making hat on; which thankfully doesn't need to be waterproof.


At this time of year, the wines in tank have gone through their fermentation and are in a sort of holding pattern. We treat wines that are destined to go into different types of wine differently in this period, but today we are going to talk about the first cab off the rank – Bacchus – which we will be bottling this week. Much to the delight of my mother, who has been waiting for 6 months since we ran out of the last one.


Bacchus is a very enormous pain in the backside in the vineyard and winery. If ever one suspects that there might be a risk from disease in the vineyard, the best place to start looking for it is in the Bacchus, as it is certain to be the first to catch whatever is passing. In fact, while I haven't seen it before, I'm told that it even has its own disease (this is literally called Bacchus disease); this gives us some idea of the utter churlishness of Bacchus. Once we have picked our hard won grapes from the vines, as a sort of parting shot, the juice that comes from them is desperately short of nitrogen, which can make the fermentations of that juice complicated, and the resulting wine unpalatable if not handled with care.


It's just as well that the mercurial swine makes nice wine, as I'd have taken great delight in digging them all up years ago otherwise. Much as I like Bacchus, I have given quite a bit of thought about doing it anyway. I really need to keep a personal supply to remind me why I do battle with it every year.


So, what does the discerning winemaker do with his Bacchus? As with most things pertaining to wine, opinions vary, but in mine, as little as possible. Much of the art of making good Bacchus tends to happen in the vineyard. If we ignore the fact that it tends to sickliness, these very fruit forward varieties are excellent when you pick them at the right time, and challenging when you don't. When Bacchus is unable to ripen, or is picked too early, it has a lean grassiness that can be overwhelming. When it is picked overripe, it packs in masses of tropical fruit that is, er, also overwhelming.


Now that we have our carefully collected, and perfectly ripe Bacchus, what happens next?


Our first choice must happen before we even make it into the winery. Like Sauvignon Blanc, there are pleasant grassy flavours that we can extract from Bacchus to a greater or lesser extent. These flavour compounds (methoxypyrazines, in case you were wondering) are present in the skins of these types of grapes in high concentration. If we wanted more of them in the finished wine, we could smash the grapes in the crusher and leave the skins in contact with the grape pulp, ensuring that more of it makes it into the wine.


Done well, this can really help to maintain the excesses of very ripe Bacchus and improve the overall balance of the wine. Done badly, or to the wrong wine, it can render it pretty undrinkable. These compounds can be extremely noisy in wine, if we don't have something equally loud at the other end of the spectrum the wine is not balanced. While this can be an absolute riot when done properly, I prefer my riots a touch more restrained, so we send our Bacchus straight into the press.


The fermentation happens in steel, which is arguably another stylistic choice. We could have chosen to ferment our Bacchus in the presence of oak, which obviously imparts its own flavour into the wine. This isn't a very popular stylistic choice with Bacchus, and it is one that I don't much like.


If we have made it this far, nursing the grapes through the growing season and then picking them at the perfect moment, the last thing that you would want to do is mask any of that carefully won flavour. This isn't to say that oak doesn't work with any wine – we use it ourselves, more on this in the future – it just has this nasty habit of clashing with fruit forward wines so that some of that flavour is muted. As opposed to it being part of a harmonious combination, where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.


At the time of writing, we are just about to filter the Bacchus before its bottling. We invariably sweeten it very slightly to help with mouth feel, overall balance and mid afternoon consumption.


Huxbear Artio Bacchus
Huxbear Artio Bacchus

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